Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing


Citing book and journal titles when posting on Medium and Substack

Emoji as semantic markup?

I haven’t been posting much on Medium in the last two years because most of what I write has been coming here to this site. Then, at the end of November 2020, I started a Substack newsletter and that’s been taking most of my attention for the last 10 weeks or so, with the result that I haven’t been posting much here either.

Writing in the Substack editor had reminded me of something that used to bother me a bit about Medium. It’s not a major issue but it tends to niggle a bit. On both platforms, when you make text italic, it’s marked up with an <em> inline element in HTML. The purpose of that element is to indicate emphasis. The problem for me is that emphasis isn’t the only reason I might want to italicize some text. In fact, since I often write about books, I probably use italics more often to denote the title of a book or periodical. When I’m writing HTML (as I do on this site) the solution is easy: instead of using <em>, I enclose the title in <cite> … </cite> tags. The presentation is indistinguishable — the text is italicized in both cases — but the semantics are different.

Unfortunately, neither Medium nor Substack makes it possible to use the <cite> element. If I want inline italics, it’s <em> or nothing; so up to now I’ve been emphasizing book titles for want of a better approach. When I removed a lot of my posts and stories from Medium and posted them on this site instead, I had to go through them, replacing most (though unfortunately not all) of the <em> tags with <cite> ones. I find it curious, given the current general enthusiasm for semantic HTML, that both Medium and Substack restrict the use of italics in this way. I suppose that they want to include all the available options in a toolbar, without making that toolbar too unwieldy.

At the weekend, I sent out my newsletter, which refers to the titles of two novels (emphasized, as usual). Then, a bit later, I was writing something to post on Medium, marking the newsletter’s 10 weeks of existence. That post contained several titles and I was getting less and less comfortable knowing that each of those titles was encased in <em> tags although I had no wish to emphasize them. I wondered whether there might not be another way.

A few months ago, I wrote a post, Even plainer text, in which I suggested an approach to writing a structured document (including title, two levels of heading, block quotes etc.) using UTF-8 only and without reference to an external (or embedded) style sheet. UTF-8 makes it possible to write most of what you need in a text editor: accented characters, dashes, curly quotes, em and en spaces, ellipses and much more. What you can’t do, however, is change the font, or make text bold or italic, so I suggested a few workarounds. This is what I had to say about the <cite> element:

There’s no way to avoid some markup for this one, I’m afraid: I suggest using braces (curly brackets) as in Henry Fielding, {The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling} or {The New Yorker}

But then it crossed my mind that a more satisfactory approach might be to use emoji, which can be included in a “plain text” file and displayed in a text editor. My idea was that, instead of using braces, you might write “Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling📖”.

The alternative that I considered was making every book or periodical title a link to information about the book (perhaps on the publisher’s site) or to the publication itself, like this: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling or The New Yorker. That way, the title would be marked up as a link and would be easily distinguishable from the surrounding text, but without being misleadingly presented as emphasis.

In principle, I prefer the emoji approach because I’m trying to keep the number of links to a minimum. If a book is mentioned several times in a piece, I don’t think it would be a good idea to make each instance of the title a link! Also, not all links would be titles, so using links to indicate titles might be a bit confusing. On the other hand, the emoji may be more distracting to a reader.

I’m pleased to cut down on my use of italics because I prefer a sans serif font, and many of those don’t have real italics, but use slanted letters instead. (Two sans fonts which do have italics, and which I like, are Trebuchet MS and Myriad; but neither of them can be used on Medium or Substack.)

So, for now, I’m trying out emoji. Here is the Medium post, mentioned above, that I was working on when the question crossed my mind. I’d be interested to hear whether readers think this kind of markup-with-emoji is useful, or is it merely annoying?

A third possibility has now occurred to me, which is to make the title a link the first time it occurs, and subsequently to render it as normal, unitalicized text. Leave it to the reader to figure out, from the context, whether (upright) “Tom Jones” refers to the novel or to its protagonist. That may impose less cognitive load than asking her to make sense of emoji. Maybe that’s what I’ll try next.

Posted by Art on 02-Feb-2021.